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Floyd Turner is convicted of flag desecration on July 2, 1967.

HistoryLink.org Essay 2492 : Printer-Friendly Format

On July 2, 1967, a Seattle drifter named Floyd Turner is convicted of flag desecration and sentenced to six months in jail and a $500 fine. Three years later, the Washington State Supreme Court overturns the conviction, arguing that Turner's holding of an American flag on May 12, 1967, while another person set fire to it "was done, if done at all, without any intent to degrade, desecrate, defile or cast contempt upon it." The court did not address the freedom of expression issues raised in the appeal. Turner served 45 days in custody before being released on bond.

An Anarchist Plot?

Turner was a young, barely-literate drifter who appeared in Seattle during the 1962 World's Fair. He claimed to have been a Doukhobor, a member of a Russian Christian sect notorious for battles with Canadian authorities and for polygamy, public nudity, and routinely burning their own homes.

Unable to find work, Turner attended a meeting of the Seattle Committee of the Unemployed, which was led by anarchists George and Louise Crowley. The Crowleys took Turner under their wing and he later became a fixture in numerous anti-war and civil rights demonstrations. He made his mark for fearlessly taunting the police and occasionally shedding his clothes during rallies and marches.

Turner was one of many who attended a party at the Central Area Motivation Project (CAMP) on the evening of May 12, 1967. A neighbor called police and reported that two men had ignited a small American flag, and King County Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll charged Floyd Turner with the crime 12 days later.

A One-Way Street

He was tried before District Court Judge Evans D. Manolides (1907-1995). Turner was represented by Edmund Wood, courtesy of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Credible witnesses, including sculptor Richard Beyer (1925-2012) and publisher Stan Stapp (1918-2006), testified that Turner was not the culprit, and anarchist Stan Iverson willingly confessed that he had incinerated the flag along with another man (later identified as Michael Travers).

Judge Manolides was unpersuaded, declaring that "anarchists cannot tell right from wrong and cannot be trusted." He added, "Freedom is a one-way street. Freedom is the right to do the right thing, not as someone pleases." Turner was sentenced to six months in jail and set bail at $3,000, far beyond Turner's means.

A Burning Issue

The ACLU won a new trial, which was scheduled for a Superior Court jury in December 1967. Two months before the trial, Seattle Magazine published a cover story sympathetic to Turner and critical of the prosecution. King County Prosecutor Carroll responded with the extraordinary step of subpoenaing the magazine's publisher, Peter Bunzel, for prejudicing the public against the County's case. Superior Court Judge J. W. Miflin promptly quashed the maneuver as "legal palaver."

Despite a spirited defense by ACLU attorney Philip Burton, Turner was again found guilty. The ACLU appealed the case to the State Supreme Court. On September 3, 1970, the Court reversed the conviction on the grounds of faulty jury instructions. While the Court did not void flag desecration laws, it narrowed the grounds for prosecution by requiring proof of "intent or purpose of defiling or desecrating [a flag] and holding it publicly to contempt."

Similar Cases

Turner's case was followed by two other Seattle cases involving desecration of an American flag to reach the United States Supreme Court. Harold Omand Spence was arrested in 1970 for displaying an American flag with a peace symbol on it (in protest of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia). He was sentenced to 10 days in jail (suspended) and a $75 fine. On June 25, 1974, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction, arguing of the flag desecration statue, "statutes of such sweep suggest problems of limited enforcement."

On October 28, 1989, Jennifer Campbell, Mark Haggerty, Carlos Garza, and Dennis Strong burned an American flag at a U.S. Post Office on Capitol Hill to protest a new federal law making flag desecration illegal. On June 11, 1990, the Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional (it had ruled in a 1984 Texas case that burning an American flag was protected by the First Amendment). The charges against the four for destruction of government property were left intact.

Sources:
The Seattle Times, September 4, 1970, p. A-1; Ibid., June 25, 1971, p. A-4; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 12, 1990, A-1, A-4; Cal McCune, From Romance to Riot: A Seattle Memoir (Seattle: Cal McCune, 1996), 82-89; Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995), 87-92.


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Floyd Turner, ca. 1967
Photo by Erik Lacitis


The flag burning incident was the cover story in Seattle Magazine, September 1967
Courtesy Seattle Magazine


Stan Iverson, 1967
Courtesy Seattle Magazine


 
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